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New London Police staffing vote could backfire on petitioners

By successfully forcing a vote on police staffing in New London, supporters of the department have left themselves with little to gain, but perhaps much to lose. And in the process, they risk inviting deeper division in the city over the issue.

The story goes back to 2014 when Mayor Michael Passero was a city councilor constantly knocking heads with the mayor at the time, Daryl Finizio. In 2011 at age 34, Finizio had become the first person elected to the position after voters approved a charter change returning executive authority to an elected mayor, abandoning the city manager system.

Finizio frequently clashed with police union leadership and worked to end the use of police dogs, pointing to statistics showing the dogs were used disproportionately against people of color. Police staffing had shrunk to 65 officers in 2014. Passero was the law-and-order councilor expressing concerns. He spearheaded approval of an ordinance calling for 80 officers, using a number from a department study.

Passero then defeated Finizio in the 2015 Democratic primary.

The 80 number has not been reached since. The most recent staff count shows 73 officers.

Flash forward to 2021. A movement that arose in the wake of George Floyd’s murder on camera by a Minnesota police officer, and which seeks to reverse a long history of Black men being treated unfairly by police and, far too often, fatally, wants change. They want to “defund police.” Not totally, in most cases, but to transfer some funding from law enforcement to recreational programs, educational help, mental health services, and community programs.

In New London, that group is the New London People’s Budget Coalition, which is pushing for a 35% cut in the department budget.

That is all a backdrop to the City Council vote in March repealing the 80-officer ordinance. Repeal passed 6-1. Knowing he would be overridden if he vetoed the repeal and recognizing that the vote had more symbolism than substance, Passero let it stand. He felt he could defend police staffing in the budget process. And he has.

With a final decision possible Monday, the council has so far moved forward with a $51.8 million budget for general government that contains a fractional property tax reduction, thanks to growth in the tax base. As presented to the council by Mayor Passero, it essentially flat funds the police budget, showing a $12.28 million expenditure, up 0.95%.

At the same time, the city is pursuing important reforms without defunding police. There are plans for constructing a community center, providing more recreational opportunities, and an intervention program to better deal with mental health-related emergency calls.

But a group of citizens, led by former councilor John Russell, didn’t want to let the ordinance repeal stand. They successfully petitioned the council to either restore the 80-officer ordinance or send the matter to referendum to let the city voters decide.

By the same 6-1 vote, the council last Monday sent the matter to an Aug. 10 referendum.

Look out what you wish for.

This referendum sets up for voters a choice whether to support a mandated police staffing number or not. If critics of the repeal prevail, they will have gained little. The 80-officer figure will return but remain largely symbolic.

If voters, on the other hand, sustain the council’s decision, then the People’s Budget Coalition will claim a mandate to indeed “defund police” and reprioritize tax dollars. Their cause will be emboldened.

Further, the lead up to this vote could prove divisive given the stark split between the pro-police and defund factions.

Passero had the better approach.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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